The E-Sylum:  Volume 10, Number 32, August 12, 2007, Article 17


I arrived back in London on the Sunday night Virgin Atlantic redeye
from Dulles International.  In what's getting to be too much of a
routine, I caught the Heathrow Express train to Paddington Station
and walked several blocks to my hotel with my wheeled luggage in tow.
After unpacking and taking a shower, I got dressed and headed to the
office.  After work I checked the schedule of events I'd lined up
for the week.

Patrick McMahon of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts had recommended
visiting Sir John Soane's museum. He wrote: "There is no numismatic
material there that I can recall (unless his designs for the Bank
of England count), but there is nothing quite like it."

The Soane web site states that "Soane designed this house to live in,
but also as a setting for his antiquities and his works of art. After
the death of his wife (1815), he lived here alone, constantly adding
to and rearranging his collections."

Never one to turn down good advice from those in the know, I had made
plans to visit the Soane after work Tuesday.  Ordinarily open only
until 5pm, the museum has a special candlelight event until 9pm on
the first Tuesday evening of the month, so I had planned my visit
for the first Tuesday of August.  Luckily, work didn't get in the
way.  I left the office about 6:45.

Fortunately, the Soane was in walking distance.   According to my
map, it was pretty much a straight shot, although in typical London
style the street changed names at various intersections.  Turning
off Charing Cross Road I walked down Newport Court to Long Acre
and then Great Queen Street on my way to 13 Lincoln Inn Fields.

Along the way a storefront caught my eye at 23 Great Queen Street.
As a numismatist I'm familiar with many types of medals, orders and
decorations.  In the window were various sashes, decorations and
several books relating to medal-issuing societies.  The name of
the store?  Central Regalia Limited - "manufacturers of fine regalia."
Aha - another only-in-London moment.

The bibliophile in me made note of the books, which could well contain
information on the issuance and use of various medals and decorations.
Included were 'The Knights Templar" by Sean Martin, 'The Mark Degree"
by David Mitchell and multiple titles by Richard Johnson such as 'The
Lodge treasurer, Charting Steward and Almoner - A Practical Guide'.
Also on display was a copy of 'Freemasonry Today' magazine.

Two doors down at 19-21 Great Queen I was stopped in my tracks again.
Signs declared Toye Kenning & Spencer Ltd, founded in 1685,
"manufacturers of ties, trophies, badges & medallions, special
commissions, presentations & long service awards."  Gold lettering
on the transom window spelled "Regalia House".  So what are the odds
of stumbling upon not one, but TWO regalia peddlers in one block?
Try THAT on your next trip to the mall.

The widow displays included clocks, watches, picture frames, ties,
Masonic badges, emblems, cufflinks, glassware, etc.  Books were on
display here, too.  In addition to some of the same tiles found in
the neighboring store were 'The Concise History of Freemasonry' by
Robert Freke Gould and 'Rose Croix: A History of the Ancient and
Accepted Rite for England and Wales'.  The firm's web site is .  The site states that "Since 1685,
the name Toye, Kenning & Spencer has been synonymous with quality,
craftsmanship and service."

"As medal manufacturers for over one hundred years, we supply the
armed forces and emergency services in both full size and miniature
medals and ribbons as well as offering a full mounting service.

"As leading international medal ribbon weavers, we have a
comprehensive stock service for United Nations & International
Mission medal ribbons.

"We also supply organisations such as the Royal Life Saving Society
and the National Rifle Association with all of their medal

The hour being late, the regalia shops were closed, but might make
a fruitful stop for collectors of medals and decorations while
visiting London.  I continued on to the Soane only to discover a
queue of some forty people waiting to get in.

The Soane is a private home and relatively small by museum standards.
Only 75 visitors are allowed in at a time.  People wait outside to be
let in only when enough others leave.  So I waited.  A group of seven
young Londoners was in front of me.  A young woman with a Spanish
accent got in line behind; next a group of people speaking German
arrived.  So who was this man whose museum has been drawing people
from around the world since 1837?

Born in 1753, John Soane was the son of a bricklayer who became one
of England's greatest architects, responsible for interiors at No. 10
Downing Street, and for Britain's first public art gallery.  His
favorite and most famous work was the headquarters of the Bank of
England (see there - a numismatic connection and I haven't set foot
in the door yet).

Soane's home is an architectural showpiece featuring a beautiful
spiraling white marble staircase and a hundreds of feet of built-in
glass-front bookcases (a bibliophile's dream!).   He died in 1837,
leaving his home as a public museum.  The original endowment has long
since been exhausted and the museum is supported by the Government
and private donations.  But admission is FREE to what is perhaps
the most idiosyncratic of all London museums.

Although Patrick McMahon didn't remember any numismatic material,
my numismatist's nose could sniff some.  I mean, what educated gentleman
of his day DIDN'T appreciate numismatics?  As I was to find out, there
were indeed some numismatic treasures waiting inside.

By the time I got to the front of the line there were about sixty
people behind me.  Finally the door manager motioned me inside.  The
narrow hallway sported six large plaster wall medallions depicting
classical allegorical scenes.  Four of them were about two feet in
diameter; two others were about four feet across.  There were others
in the alcove and hallway beyond, nine in all.

Turning to the right I entered a combination dining room/library.
Books were shelved throughout the entire home, but the core of the
6,000+ volume collection is stored here.  It was about this time that
I realized that a nostalgic candlelight tour is not the best time to
view either coins or books - in the dim light it was difficult to
read the spines and see what books were present.  But I was able
to make out a few.

The first item I encountered was a nicely bound set of Gentleman's
Magazine v1-54, 1731-1764.  No, it's not forerunner of Playboy -
Gentleman's Magazine was a potpourri of news, announcements and
discussions on a wide range of topics, driven largely by news and
reader letters.  Sound familiar?  I like to think of The E-Sylum
as a faster-paced GM for numismatists of today (both Gentlemen and
Ladies, thank you).  There are many interesting numismatic tidbits
within, such as a contemporary announcement of Franklin's Libertas
Americana medal in the March, 1783 issue.

Other books in the library include the works of Chaucer, a beautifully
bound 25-volume set of 'Swift's Works', a 20-volume Encyclopedia
Britannica, Raleigh's 'History of the World' and Malcolm's 'History
of Persia'.  On a bookshelf in the Kitchen I found the five-volume
'Catalogue of the Library in Sir John Soane's Museum'.  According
to the museum's website, "Work to recatalogue the Library to modern
bibliographical standards is nearing completion, and over the next
three years groups of entries will be made available on the website
at intervals as the editing is completed."  Surely there must be a
few, but try as I might, I could not locate a numismatic tome

To access the online catalog of Soane's library, see:

In the Dressing room beyond were four hanging frames filled with
"casts of gems" by Edward Birch and Nathaniel Marchant.  These were
pretty coin-like cameos in plaster.  On the far wall I spotted a
man's portrait labeled "Nathaniel Marchant R.A. Die Sinker To the
MINT".  Aha!  Another numismatic connection.

I've found little about him on the Internet, other than a reference
to an article by Gertrud Seidman in the Fifty-Third Volume of the
Walpole Society titled 'Nathaniel Marchant, Gem-Engraver, 1739-1816'.
The Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University mounted a small exhibition
on Nathaniel Marchant in honour of Miss Seidmann in 1999-2000.  Can
anyone shed more light on Mr Marchant?  Was he an engraver at the
Royal Mint?

The Portrait room held 28 paintings and sketches, including twelve
by William Hogarth (1964-1764).  There were more paintings throughout
the house.  In the gift shop were some beautiful large landscapes
with water and buildings including two by Venetian artist Canaletto
(1697-1768) - Piazza S. Marco and Rialto, Venezia.

The sheer amount and diversity of the Soane holdings is amazing.
There are architectural elements, busts, statues, pre-Columbian pottery
and even a huge sarcophagus of an Egyptian King.  What a treasure palace
- I can only wonder what the value of the collection is today, 170
years after Soane's death.

How did Soane assemble his collection?  The docents told me that although
he took the Grand Tour of Europe as a young man he rarely traveled, and
bought much of his collection through auctions and dealers.  He also
purchased entire collections.  When I asked about coins and medals I
was told that Soane wasn't much interested in numismatics.  Pity -
imagine the numismatic treasures that could have found their way into
this collector's centuries-old time capsule.  The docents threw me a
bone, though, telling me that upstairs was a set of medals Soane bought
in Paris in 1819.  Hmmmm - more later.

I had already encountered a few numismatic specimens on display.  In
an alcove in the basement were five medals including gold and silver
examples of a "medal presented to John Soane by the Architects of
England. Engraved by Wyon the Chief Engraver of His Majesty's Mint.
The silver version shows the reverse featuring a portion of his
favourite work: the Bank of England."  The obverse of the medal
features a portrait of Soane.   Unfortunately, much of Soane's earlier
Bank of England building was demolished as part of a renovation in the
1920s which some called "the greatest architectural crime, in the City
of London, of the twentieth century".

Finally completing my rounds of the basement and ground floor, I made
my way upstairs in the dimming evening light.  How come they don't make
candles with more candlepower?  Anyway, just as the closing hour
approached I found the numismatic Holy Grail of the Soane museum,
sitting in two glass-topped wooden cases on a window seat in the back
bedroom.  Each case held four custom-made wooden trays of bronze medals
of all sizes, about 130 in all.  Despite the poor lighting I could see
that the medals were in great condition, many with superb mahogany
surfaces.  The label read as follows:

"Medals struck at the Paris Mint between 1796 and 1815 to celebrate
the victories and other episodes in Napoleon's career.  Designed by
Baron Denon (1747-1825) and engraved by various French artists, this
collection is traditionally said to have been assembled by Baron
for the Empress Josephine."

I was agog at the sight of the collection and wished for just
three things:

1. a good magnifier
2. a good flashlight
3. a good deal more time

But soon it was 8:55PM and downstairs one of the docents said
"Do guard your ears!" before clanking a large hand bell to signal
closing time.  Reluctantly, I left the building.

I visited an Indian restaurant for dinner on my way back to the tube
stop.  Passing a Tapas restaurant decked out in red chintz, it looked
to me like a French bordello on Bastille Day.  I guess I still had
visions of Paris on my brain.

It was 10pm and few cars were about on Charing Cross Road.  I jaywalked
straight across without a care, a death-defying act in midday.  The
only moving vehicles were six tricycle rickshaws, some pulling tourists,
most empty.  The sidewalks were as packed as ever with people, though,
including families with children coming from the thratre.  I wished
my family could be with me.  Soon I was on the tube, hurtling back to
my hotel on a Central Line train.  So ended another day in London.

While writing this diary entry I came across a great article on
Soane's museum.  Here's an excerpt that we collectors can relate to:

"John Soane's problem was that he couldn't stop collecting fantastic
things and cramming them into his house on Lincoln's Inn Fields in

"He was one of those splendid and productive wackos who make life
worth living for the rest of us by leaving behind something astonishing
to remind us that the secret to being interesting is being interested."

"The tidy chaos of Soane's Museum is what makes it so enchanting --
unlike other museums, the collection is not organized according to any
perceivable linear or thematic thread. He arranged his exquisite
hodgepodge the way he wished, juxtaposing objects for his own
aesthetic satisfaction. Great cooks don't bother with recipes."

[Has the existence of Soane's set of Napoleonic medals been recorded
in the numismatic literature?  Is there any other record of its
provenance? -Editor]

To read the complete Salon article on Soane's museum, see:
Full Story

For more information on Napoleonic medals, see:
Full Story

For more information on Baron Denon, see:
Full Story

For more information on the Soane museum, see

For more information on Sir John Soane, see:


  Wayne Homren, Editor

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